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Howard, Giambra, control board incur comptroller's wrath on costs

In unveiling his latest audit, the Erie County comptroller publicly fumed Thursday about the failure of the sheriff, the county executive and the state-appointed control board to tackle the Sheriff's Office's chronic and costly problems.

"It drives me batty to sit here and see the same problems reoccur when we know they can be fixed," County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said in a news conference as he described his auditors' findings at the correctional facility in Alden.

The problems cited were not as grave as those cited in some of his other audits. There were accounting no-nos involving the Inmate Commissary Fund, he said, and payroll records that could be better kept. The sheriff could take steps to save money, such as running his own laundry operation in Alden rather than hauling laundry to Erie County Medical Center, Poloncarz said.

But he acknowledged that the number of employee injuries have fallen significantly over the last 10 years and said the department does "an OK job" running the correctional facility. He focused instead on some bigger-picture items that have not been addressed.

Among the issues: In January his staff had warned that it was time to renegotiate a four-year-old deal with the City of Buffalo that costs county government and its taxpayers more than suspected.

City Hall has paid the county $937,000 a year since it moved its cellblock operation into the Erie County Holding Center downtown in 2003. But Poloncarz's auditors in January disclosed that the cellblock was costing Erie County more like $1.73 million a year.

They reminded the sheriff and the county executive's staff that the contract let them renegotiate the terms if they acted before July 1. But July 1 came and went with no action from county officials.

Further, the contract let the Sheriff's Office at least add an inflationary increase -- about $70,000 more. But the sheriff initially billed City Hall at the standard rate: $937,000. Sheriff Timothy B. Howard said a corrected invoice has gone out. But the next chance to redraw the contract arrives in 2010.

Howard said Poloncarz had agreed months ago that the sheriff's staff did not have authority to renegotiate the contract. That would be the job of County Executive Joel A. Giambra and his staff.

But Giambra's budget director, James M. Hartman, said the window of opportunity had actually closed before Poloncarz's January report, and it was doubtful the payments would have changed much, anyway.

As for the Holding Center, for years the overtime paid to guards there has consumed about $7 million to $8 million a year. The county must meet staffing levels ordered by the state Commission of Correction.

But Poloncarz in January said that by hiring 11 more guards and using them primarily on weekends, the department could lower the weekend spike in overtime pay and save up to $2.1 million a year.

Thursday, the Legislature approved adding eight deputies, two sergeants and five nurses. But they won't be enough to eliminate overtime, so legislators also added about $990,000 to the overtime budget.

Poloncarz said the Sheriff's Office's Jail Division should be squarely in the control board's focus, considering the board's oft-stated desire to re-engineer government and save money.

Later in the day, Giambra weighed in with a written broadside against the control board and its chairman, Anthony J. Baynes, with whom Giambra often differs.

"I believe Chairman Baynes will not address these issues with the Sheriff's Department because he is conflicted due to the fact his son, Anthony Baynes Jr., ran Sheriff Howard's election campaign," Giambra wrote.

". . . Chairman Baynes frequently makes reference to my so called family-and-friends program, and yet it seems he has a rather influential family of his own."

Baynes responded late in the day, indicating that the Baynes-Giambra feud is again raging. Baynes criticized Poloncarz, too, circulating a written statement that said the control board earlier this year agreed to provide $684,000 in state money to further study "alternatives to incarceration" -- programs such as electronic home confinement that would lower the number of jail inmates. So the control board hasn't ignored the county's jails, he said.

Then Baynes focused on the county officials.

"The Polancarz-Giambra comments today highlight management deficiencies," Baynes said. ". . . The control board's role, with a voluntary board and a staff of four, is not to manage the county. If those who have the duty to manage aren't prepared to do so, they should step aside.

"On a personal note, I feel compelled to comment on Mr. Giambra's statement concerning my family. It is also apparent that Mr. Polancarz's political deputy has still not gotten over his involvement in a losing effort in the 2005 Sheriff's race."

He was referring to Timothy C. Callan, who ran the campaign of Democrat Charles T. Fieramusca Jr. against Howard. Poloncarz has not allowed Callan to work on audits concerning the Sheriff's Office.

"I am very proud not only of what my son has accomplished," Baynes said, "but even more importantly, how he comports himself in his day-to-day activities. My son is owed an apology."

e-mail: mspina@buffnews.com

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